BACKGROUND

All Saints’ Day, 2019

I Google-mapped my mom’s childhood home. It wasn’t an easy task because the houses don’t have street addresses demarcating them. But I know what the closest cross streets are. The house is not exactly at the intersection, but close enough so I could locate it by sight.

The façade is wooden. I’m not sure it’s ever been painted. The building looks like it’s lived a long life. I wonder to myself how many stories those walls could tell. They are like arms warmly embracing a history, that of my mother. And mine, too, by extension.

What I first notice in the Google photo still is the little encased garden in front of the house on two sides with what might be aluminum fencing. Funnily enough, it’s like the front yard gardens I remember in abundance on my one trip to Montreal years ago. There, however, they have stylized iron fencing instead of aluminum.

Turns out my relatives, unbeknownst to them, have executed my #curbappealgoals in their own way. We aren’t so different after all, I guess.

Their garden on Capistrano Street is lush. I think my mom would have been thrilled that they have tended to a garden in the middle of a heavily commercial district. The juxtaposition is quite striking in person, I’m sure. Street traffic, you can tell by the photo, is congested. If I close my eyes, I can imagine the smell of exhaust fumes and the loud horns of motorists trying to get through the chaos.

My mom was an avid gardener. In fact, for years she worked for the Philippine federal bureau for agriculture soils as a chemist. She was always tweaking fertilizer concoctions like a mad scientist when I was a kid, in the efforts to generate the highest yields of green leaves and flowers. The inside of our house was a bit of an indoor plant jungle.

The first floor of the Capistrano Street house is occupied by a sari-sari store, called “Virsal”, a portmanteau of the surname “Virtudazo” and my Auntie Lily’s maiden name.

When describing what a sari-sari is, to people who don’t know, I liken one to a 7-11 convenience store. An easy spot for one-stop shopping. Nowadays they have even become the go-to prepaid mobile loading station, thanks to the popularity of smartphones. Socially, people go there to gossip about what’s going on in the neighborhood as much as they do to pick up daily household items. These stores are ubiquitous. Walking around the city, you’d come across a sari-sari even more frequently than you would stumble upon a Starbucks in Seattle.

The Virsal store has been there for as long as I can remember. It was there when I visited the Philippines a few times as a child and later, when I was in my early 20s.

That time during university I arranged for a long stay, about three months, during which I was to write an independent study on labor moving from the Philippines to western regions of the world. What happened when Filipinos left their families behind? What happened when they found new homes elsewhere? The study was to be an examination of financial mechanisms of international migration politics.

My research relied on oral histories from family members and sari-sari store regulars, rather than formally sought out case studies. I collected information casually, almost stealth-like. They didn’t know my intentions when I sat them down asking questions of their life. They described hardships and methods of labor movement that skirted the realms of legality. It wasn’t a fair exchange to ask these explanations of them. All I could offer to reciprocate their candidness was my non-judgement and an attempt to understand the complexity of their situation.

After a year of reviewing notes and reflecting on what I had learned, I found that what I could write about was too sensitive, too close to home. It would be a betrayal of confidence were I to use the material for publication. Who was I to tell their stories for them?

Fast forward 2 decades.

My mom passed away not too long after my extended stay in the Philippines. I miss her, as you might imagine. I have one saving grace. She was an accomplished memoirist. When I studied and worked in Europe during her last years, she would write letters and record her voice on cassette tapes. She knew she was dying, you see, and took every opportunity to make sure someone (me) knew her stories, so that I might try to publish them at a later date.

I kept these things in a box, which I have recently found in my dad’s storage.

The situation now repeats. My dad is aging. And the realization of this has me mobilizing my daughterly duties once again. I began with the idea of chronicling my dad’s history for him (I write; he does not), but it quickly occurred to me that I don’t need to do much at all. He can speak for himself.

As so many others can.